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“That took courage. Running out into the woods like that, at night.”
I turn to look at him. The gun gleams in the half light. “Courage has nothing to do with it,” I say. I lift myself onto the widow sill. He shifts, as if he thinks I’ll jump out of this second story window, even though I would likely break my leg on the weed choked gravel drive below. Or my neck.
We look at each other for long seconds. I can’t read his expression. Distaste? Anger? Admiration? I cannot tell and I don’t know that I care. Off along one wall, there is a low cabinet with doors and it tugs at my attention. I don’t look. I don’t have to; I know about the darkness within it. I know the secret it hides.
“Did you dream of her again?” he asks.
“It wasn’t a dream,” I say. I can feel the cold blade of my knife resting against my arm. It never warms up, no matter how long it lies against skin. Or stays buried in flesh. “But yes. I did see her again.” My fingers flex around the bone handle. I’m tired; I wasn’t sleeping well even before this all began. Now I barely sleep at all, living in a high alert state, a hunted animal with no safe den. No matter where I go. No matter what I do. She will find me. If I am to escape her, I must finish this.
Was that first vision what drew her? Or had my memories of the lake brought her? I don’t have those answers. I only know that my first sight of her was of the girl she was. After that, it was only the thing she’s become. The spirit, the legend, the ruined and violent demon that nobody tried to save.
“There was a quiet place in my life after Daniel tried to kill me. I was wandering through a wasteland, waiting for the day when I could move on. Then she came to me. With her rage and her cruelty, hungry and murderous.” I bite my lip. “And she brought James to me.”
So James came to find you?” he asks. “Do you think he came to hurt you?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve been in his place. Maybe that’s what she wanted. Maybe not.” I don’t want to feel sorry for him, but I do anyway. “It’s funny, but I never really think about how I would look to the rest of the world if they knew Roxy drove me into killing. That I did it so we could both have peace. But, after meeting him….” I shake my head. I cannot imagine how he survived so long. Perhaps because, even in death, even in her insanity, she had a soft spot for him. If you can call haunting someone until they are a skeletal wreck of their former self a soft spot.
He looks at me. I look back. We are silent. We are perfectly matched, neither of us stronger than the other. Neither of us in any hurry to finish this. What comes to pass will pass. And I’ve no place else to be.
I cross to the cabinet and put my hands on top of it. There is just enough space inside to curl up and hide, but it is coffin tight. Just enough room for one. “What is it you think she wants, Eva? Justice? Revenge?”
I shrug. “Death.” And that is the only real answer; she is a mad thing. She doesn’t have any one target. She would drown the world, I think, if she could manage it. “She hates everyone.”
“And you think this will stop her?” He motions around. The walls run red. The gritty floor is spotted with bright, wet pools. There is something lying in the center, but it is nearly unrecognizable now.
My smile is wicked; she is not the only one with rage to burn. “What makes you think I’m doing any of this for her?” I’ve surprised him; for all that he thinks he knows about me, there is so much I’ve managed to keep tucked away, hidden from all but those I kill. And Daniel. But Daniel does not count.
“I grew up in an ordinary neighborhood,” I say. “Neat lawns, nosy neighbors, trees lined up along the street. Once, I went door to door selling pet rocks and even though nobody ever really liked my family, every single house bought at least one.” I see the confusion on his face. “I remember, you understand? I was five. Maybe six. Maybe April was there. Maybe not. But even though it’s a small memory, I have it. It makes sense. It belongs in the narrative of my life.”
I lean back against the window sill. The sky is still clear. The sun unforgiving. But something in me knows a storm is coming, that it is hidden just beyond the mountains, but moving toward us at a steady, implacable rate. “I did not remember black lakes or forbidding houses. I did not remember her. Yet there was that familiarity, as if she was an old friend. As if I ought to remember. But she didn’t belong, you see?” I move the photo to the window sill, looking down at it. The black water of the lake gleamed under a lost sun. One wall of the house – more glass than wood – reflected tree, grass, water, and girl. And she smiled at the camera as though the person holding it was the only one in the whole world. She’d been beautiful in a different way than Roxy.
Roxy was wild. Beautiful because a flame burned so hot and bright within her that none could resist her magnetism. But the girl in the picture was sweet. Her naïveté and blind trust were obvious on her face. Her expression was one of desperate pleasure. It was something I’d seen all too often on my own face before Roxy. It was an echo of how I’d felt inside when Cody was near. I knew the girl too well; I’d once been just like her.
“So what was she, then?” he asks. “Why did you remember her?”
I shake my head at him. “We aren’t there yet. No fair skipping ahead.” I smile, enjoying the frustration I see on his face; he needs to understand. It will drive him mad if he can’t find some sort of logic. But I don’t much care about the state of his mind. “What I can tell you is that, after that first time, what came to find me was no innocent girl. It was a damned spirit, looking for someone to drag to hell with it.”
“So she came to you as a… a… ghost?” He grimaces as the word passes his lips and why not? He is not a man of belief.
“A demon,” I say. “Some people will tell you that demons are fallen angels. But they don’t see the dark underside of humanity. They don’t want to see. Easier to blame some unknowable thing than accept ourselves as the villain. Easier to say it is the devil. Because, if you can believe your neighbor can become something terrible, then you also have to believe it of yourself.”
“Do you really think that?” he asks.
“I know that,” I say quietly. “I know what I am. How much worse I could be. You know, in order to truly hate something, you must know it? Well, who better to torment humanity than something that once was human?”
He shrugs. “But maybe there are no such things as demons or ghosts. Maybe this is just all in your head.”
I smile at him. “Or maybe it isn’t and that scares the hell out of you.” He shifts, uncomfortable. I’ve won this round because he knows there is more, but does not like to think about it, spends most of his time trying to deny it. I wonder if he’s afraid of being judged.
We sit in that silence for a few minutes. Victor and defeated. Then he looks hard at me. “When did you see her next?” His clinging to stubborn denial of the unseen grows boring. I tap the blade against my forearm, squeezing and relaxing my fingers, wondering that the bone handle feels as though it was made for me. “When you saw James”
“No,” I say and my irritation is clear. I close my eyes, remembering that day, remembering the perfect, blue sky and the smell of spring. “She found me in the woods.” I bite my lip. “Only, I didn’t realize it was her. Not right then.”
“Why?” His tone says he has decided to humor me. “Were you on another night run?”
“It wasn’t dark out,” I say. My stomach gives that weird twist, that sense of falling down inside. I’d thought I was used to ghosts. But they aren’t something you can get used to. They are unnatural. They are the echo of what never should have been tied up with ribbons of rage and unholy desires.
Roxy bordered on cruel, at times, scaring me often enough that I’d been half mad with her presence. But she guarded me too. She’d saved me, even gotten angry on my behalf. But Caroline Brown….
I hadn’t even known her name. I only knew that my unfamiliar memories began to haunt my dreams. I woke often and went running. But running was my addiction, so it did not take long before I was back to running just as much as I used to, day, night, it didn’t matter. I was leaping rocks, climbing the steep hills of Shawnee and descending into valleys, chasing peace and able, for those hours, to forget about Roxy’s absence and Daniel’s fingers around my throat, able to leave behind the FBI special agent that watched me with suspicious eyes and kept constant guards at the end of our driveway. Able to stop thinking about the way my parents looked at me, half frightened, half desperate to make it all okay again. In running, I was whole and at peace. And so I spent much of my time in the forest. It was there that she found me. On a bright, almost warm spring day.
There are things so stereotyped that they have passed into funny and back out, into the realm of terrifying. Like, because it was so overdone that it became ordinary and people forgot about it. So when it comes back, it is that much worse; no-one would ever use such a worn out joke. Which means it must be far worse than a prank.
Ghosts in white sheets aren’t scary anymore. We do not, as a society, see the sheets for what they once would have been. Winding shrouds for corpses. We see only the cartoon version of the halloween gag. We don’t find it terrifying because we do not make that once common connection, that whatever is under the shroud must be dead. Not just dead. But rotten.
But, that cartoon ghost stops being funny when it isn’t a cartoon anymore. To see something standing beneath a sheet, to see it and know that, whatever it hides isn’t human, that is when the gag stops being funny and starts being horrifying all over again.
It was waiting for me around a corner. Standing so still it might have been a shrouded statue. The sheet was heavy with… not water. Or, at least, not only water. It was soaked crimson, but not evenly. It was dark in some places, almost black, and pale in others, such a light pink that it was clear that, once, it had been white. It was plastered against whatever stood beneath, giving me the shape of a head, shoulders hunched just slightly forward, and what could have been the swell of breasts. But there was something… wrong. Whatever stood under the sheet was twisted somehow. Not quite the right shape. The only sound was the dripping of the soaked sheet, leaving dotted lines under the edges of it. There were no eyeholes and, somehow, that made it worse.
Most girls would have screamed or sprinted away. They would have reacted with fear. Even a man might have had a little scare and wanted to run away. But I am not like other people. I lived with Roxy’s furious shadow for months. I learned not to run from mad dogs. And something told me this one would tear me apart if I did.
I backed away, steps slow. I turned only when I was far enough away to feel as though I couldn’t be reached. The thing beneath the sheet did not move. It was so still, in fact, that I thought maybe it was a prank, a late Halloween joke that I’d happened into unexpectedly. A mannequin, maybe, set up in the middle of the path for some local kid to stumble on. Or maybe anyone would do and I was the unfortunate butt of this stupid joke.
I started back down the path, turned the corner, almost sighing with relief, certain I was right. And there it was. The shrouded figure standing as though it had been there all along. It was the same as before. But not quite. It had shifted just a little, as if caught in the process of stepping forward. “Eeeeevaaaa.” The soft, wet voice sighed all around me, rippling out of the trees, the grass, the sky.
I stepped away. It stood, as still as stone. I turned. And it was there again, just a bit closer. This time, the sheet was spread a little, as if arms were rising. And that terrible stillness held it. But it was a lie. I could feel that it was a lie. It was mocking me, waiting to pounce.
Back step, turn, and there it was, arms slightly higher, as if preparing to yell boo at me. “Fuck,” I muttered. I kept my eyes on it while backing away. Several steps, keeping my eyes locked on the sheet. It stayed still.
I took a deep breath. Spun. And there it was, nearly on top of me, arms stretched up, ready to fall down over me. And it seemed that there could be no more terrible thing in the world, that, if it touched me, something horrible would happen. I could smell it, a mix of sweet copper and murky, rotten mud, the sort you find as stagnant water begins to recede. “Eeeeevaaaaa,” the voice called my name with a gurgling giggle that made my skin crawl. “Come play with me, Eva. Come and play!” With the last word, the sheet fell down on me.
I did scream then. I flailed and kicked that the cold, soggy mess, gagging on the smell of blood and scummy, foul mud. I clawed at the sheet, but it drew tighter, closing over my face like a rubber glove, cutting off my breath. I tore at it and, for a second, I thought I wasn’t going to get free, that it was going to suffocate me. An hour before, I would have said I didn’t really care if I died. But, suddenly, I did care. I cared a lot.
I fought harder and, without warning, the sheet loosened. I yanked it away from me, threw it, rolled away along the dirty path, and scrambled to my feet, looking around wildly. There was nothing. No sheet. No figure. Just an empty path. I was utterly alone.
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